Sony Vaio Z540 vs. HP ZD7000

Sony Vaio Z540 vs. HP ZD7000

Yes, it’s another long, boring, techie-wannabe filler review, since we’re out of carseat material for today.  My current HP ZD7000 notebook is almost 5 years old.  Not bad, considering it spent a substantial percentage of its first year being repaired (or not repaired as the case may be) by HP.  It was relatively problem free for two years after that, until it died again a couple years ago.  They replaced the motherboard with a new video card under warranty and it has worked like a charm since then, knock on wood.  Other than a loose power connector, it might last another couple years, if only as a video player or for the kids to beat on.  Problem is, it’s a tank.  It’s a 17″ widescreen model and combined with its huge power adapter, it weighs well over 10 pounds.  Plus, it eats through a full battery in less than 2 hours of surfing and can warm a small room with all the heat it generates.  It has a 3.06GHz Pentium 4, 1GB memory and ATI x600 graphics, pretty much top-of-the line in 2004.

It wasn’t meant to be a portable machine; I bought it as a desktop replacement that had a lot of power and you could even play games on it.  Now, I want something light and easy to carry on trips or around the house.  I tried a netbook.  It was a nice computer, but ultimately I returned it because of a quirky touchpad, an uncomfortable palm rest and a keyboard that was just a hair too small and made touch typing error-prone.  I then bought a pretty typical 14″ notebook, a Samsung X460 targeted at business travelers.  It was also nice, but it had a screen with a very narrow sweet spot for viewing and washed out quickly if you tilted it up or down even slightly.  Mine also a problem with Vista errors and crashes that made me decide to sell it and start looking for yet another notebook.  Well, that and two trips for repair in the first month brought back painful memories of my HP ZD7000.  I do credit Samsung with customer service that is far, far better than my experiences with HP, though their repair department is probably no better.

Anyway, back to the new computer.  I took a look at a Sony Z590 when I was shopping last time.  It really fit the bill of what I wanted.  Despite having a full size keyboard, it is quite compact and very light weight.  Solid battery life.  Good display.  Reasonable power.  Bluetooth.  Vista Business with XP downgrade disc included.  And a whole lot more.  Overall, a nice upgrade to my HP desktop replacement in a package that was one third the weight and lasted twice as long on a battery.  Problem was, most people seemed to be paying well over $1500 for them and much more in many cases.  The current model is the very similar Vaio VGN-Z690 series that are even a bit more expensive.

If you shop around now, you can get a reasonably configured version of the Sony Vaio Z series for around $1500.  Lower end versions, discontinued and outlet models are selling for even less.  I happened upon a Z540 in the online outlet section of a local retailer.  I was told it was a customer return for an unwanted item that was in an unopened box.  More importantly, being an outlet item, it had a 30-day return policy with no restocking fee.  I took a chance on it, since it was only $1000.  Plus, the similar Z530 got a nice review at Laptopmag, as did the Z550 at Mobiletechreview.  In fact, Laptop Mag rated the Z540 as one of the 10 best notebooks for 2008.

When it arrived, it was clear that the box had been opened.  There was no way to tell if it was used or simply inspected by the returns department.  On the plus side, it was in pristine condition with no scratches or blemishes of any kind.  So far, it’s working perfectly  No crashes, no blue screens and no problem history log with numerous new error entries each day like the Samsung X460 it replaced.  How does it compare beyond that?

Pros:

  • Very good keyboard.  Similar to the one on the X460.  Comfortable, good spacing, no flex.  Quiet keys with the right amount of feedback. The only minor drawback is the lack of dedicated page up and page down keys found on the Samsungs.  You do get two programmable keys that could serve that function or any other.  I don’t forsee any issues with the keyboard; it’s as good as the reviews say it is.
  • Decent touchpad.  Much nicer than the one on my Samsung NC10 netbook and it works as I expect without any tweaking.  The buttons are also nice with the right feedback and a light audible click.  Unlike the X460, the touchpad is slightly offset to the left and centered on the spacebar, as it should be.  The size and texture are fine and it’s easy to locate the edges by feel.  The only issue is that it isn’t as responsive as the one on the X460.  It sometimes takes it a couple seconds to get going.
  • The Vaio Z is an “ultraportable.”  It’s a compact 13.1 inch widescreen model and weighs just over 3 pounds, barely more than some netbooks.  It’s no thinner than the NC10 or X460 I had, but its other dimensions are in between the two at 12.4 inches by 8.3 inches.  The adapter is a hair bigger than the ones from Samsung, but still fairly small.  Combined, they weigh just under 4 pounds.  Very nice.
  • Battery life is quite good, too.  In stamina mode with brightness at 50% and bluetooth and wireless on and in use, I’m getting just over 5 hours during surfing, blogging, email and Office.
  • No issues with wi-fi or bluetooth.  Connectivity is fine with no dropouts.  My Nokia 3G phone syncs up as expected and works fine as a tethered modem.  My Microsoft bluetooth mouse works fine, too.
  • Heat levels are decent and about the same as the X460.  It runs warm on the lap, but not hot.  The warmth is on the bottom center and left, not on the palmrest, touchpad or keys.
  • The display is great for a small LED backlit screen.  It’s almost as bright as the Samsung X460 display, but doesn’t have the drawback of awful vertical viewing angles.  To be fair, you do lose contrast as you tilt the screen forward and back, but the sweet spot is more generous and the image doesn’t invert so quickly from above.  A brightness setting of 3/8 to 5/8 is fine for indoors.  8/8 is decent even outdoors in bright light, as the screen is not highly reflective.  Plus, it has a true 16:9 widescreen resolution of 1366×768, a bit more real estate than the 1280×800 typical of many smaller notebooks.  Higher end Z models have a pricier 1600 by 900 screen.  Either way, no black bars on DVDs in normal widescreen format!
  • Very good build quality.  Despite being lighter, the quality is a bit better than my X460.  The screen seems sturdy, no obvious gaps or poor assembly.  No wobbling.  No issues at all with fit and finish.  That’s even more impressive considering mine was a customer returned one.
  • The palmrest is slightly rounded and wide enough for comfort, much like the X460.  The NC10 netbook had a narrow palmrest with a sharp corner that was very uncomfortable after a while.
  • Features.  It’s got it all and still weighs only 3.3 pounds with a 6-cell battery.  There’s a full featured dual layer DVD burner, something omitted in some ultraportables.  Though it is a tray-load system, it doesn’t open inadvertently like the one on the X460 (because of poor eject button placement).  In addition to the efficient integrated Intel x4500 graphics chip, you can flip a switch from stamina to speed mode to enable the discrete Nvidia 9300M GS chip, another feature uncommon on ultraportables.  In Vista, you can do this on the fly without a reboot, though it takes 10-15 seconds to refresh.  You also get separate SD and Memory Stick readers, a couple USB ports, an HDMI output (works only in speed mode), a VGA output, a modem, LAN, Smartcard 34 expansion slot, iLink firewire for video transfers, fingerprint scanner, TPM security and headphone/mic ports.  There’s also a wireless on/off switch that disables wi-fi and bluetooth to extend battery life even more; very handy for airplane trips and such.
  • Performance is solid and mine is on the low end of Z models.  The P8400 processor is one step above the P7350 on the X460.  Like the 460, it uses newer DDR3/GDDR3 RAM for main and video memory.  The discrete video option is also one step above the one in the X460, though it has less video memory.
  • The stereo speakers aren’t all that good, but I put them in the Pros section because they are better than the ones on the X460.  About what you’d expect in an ultraportable.
  • Style.  The matte carbon fiber finish with chrome accents not only looks good, but it isn’t a fingerprint and smudge magnet like the glossy black plastic on the X460.  The brushed aluminum palmrest is a big upgrade, too.  Mine is black and looks nicer than the X460 for my preferences.
  • Made in USA.  Yup, says so on the bottom and on the box.  Even if it’s just the last screw being put into the case in the USA, that’s pretty rare for any type of computer hardware.

Cons and Quibbles:

  • There is a battery drain issue when power is turned off.  This seems to be common on many smaller Sony notebooks.  Mine loses almost 1% of battery life per hour it is turned off, and I do mean shutdown and not just in sleep/standby mode.  This isn’t a big issue since I use mine around the house.  The fix if you are traveling and need it to be charged on arrival is to remove the battery if it will be off for an extended period.
  • I think there is a software issue that causes the keyboard to “miss” keystrokes every once in a while if you type at a moderate or fast speed.  It seems to happen only on the internet and is much worse on specific websites.  I’d say it was an internet issue, except that it doesn’t happen to any of my other desktops or notebooks.
  • Noise levels are moderate, somewhat noisier than the X460.  It’s certainly not bad, but you will notice it ramping up and down in a quiet room, even on “Stamina” + “Silent” mode.  With any kind of ambient noise, you won’t notice it.  The optical DVD drive is also fairly loud when in use.
  • No easy access to hard drive for upgrades.  Access to the hard drive is a bit more involved than the easy access on the X460.  I may still do an upgrade to my Intel SSD, but haven’t decided yet.  This would have been a major drawback, but there are some good guides that show the procedure with photos, and it looks like it won’t be too bad if I decide to do this.  Memory access is easy enough, there are two slots.
  • Bloatware and trialware.  Mine had a lot of junk on it, a reputation Sony has had for a while.  Mine was a pre-configured “business” version and I understand the consumer versions have even more crap clogging up the hard drive and consuming resources.  While mine runs well, the startup time is considerably slower than the X460, even before I tweaked it.  If you custom order one and select Vista Business as an option, you can at least select a free “Fresh Start” option where you get a lot less useless software trials and such.
  • Price.  After tax and shipping mine was close to $1100.  That’s a couple hundred more than the X460 and more than double the netbook I was also considering.  You do get what you pay for, though!  Plus, prices are dropping as models are discontinued and better competition arises.

Making the higher cost a little easier to swallow, Sony has a promotion where you can get a productivity or mobility bundle if you qualify with a purchase of a Vaio Z and certain other models.  I prequalified and sent in my paperwork.  I’m anxiously awaiting my spare battery and AC power adapter that would cost me $250 or so with Sony’s outrageous accessory pricing.  The bundle also comes with a carry bag, though I expect I will sell that to buy a lightweight neoprene sleeve instead.

Overall, I’m really liking it so far.  It’s a lot nicer all around than the X460.  It really does have everything.  You can also find dozens of pre-configured versions that vary by display resolution, hard drive (or SSD) speed and size, processor speed, memory size, operating system and options like integrated mobile broadband option (Sprint) and Blu-Ray.  You can also custom configure your own and pick among a few color choices, including a trendy premium carbon fiber upgrade.  A top of the line model will set you back nearly $3000 fully loaded, though!

I had a couple other options before I found the Z.

On the cheaper end of the scale, there’s a netbook that resolves some of my complaints with my Samsung NC10 netbook.  It’s almost as if Samsung read my review when they created the new Samsung N120 Netbook!  They basically put the same hardware into a 12″ case.  That case has a full size keyboard, a bigger touchpad, bigger palmrest with rounded edges and improved speakers.  All things I panned in my review.  They also extended the battery life even more, though the NC10 was already quite good in that regard.  If you’re looking for a netbook, the N120 is a nice alternative to the tiny ones but is still under $500 and weighs under 3 pounds! 

Aluminum Macbook

On the high end of my budget was the new aluminum Macbook.  Macs are way overpriced based on power and features, but you get a much nicer operating system and hopefully fewer bugs and better support.  The Macbook was $1250, so a bit more than I wanted to spend.  The drawback is the display, one that is widely regarded as having poor vertical viewing angles like the X460 I just sold.  It also lacked a memory card slot.  Though it had a smaller screen than the X460, it weighed even more.  Still, those things weren’t deal breakers for me and I might well have bought one if I hadn’t found a Vaio Z for less.

In the event I am too picky and find fault with the Sony within my 30 day return period, I may be writing a review of the Samsung N120 or the Apple Aluminum Macbook 13 a month from now!  In the mean time, I’m depending on our readers to buy some of these computers through our Amazon affiliate links to subsidize my computer splurge!